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Spoils of Destruction

Indonesian villagers fighting palm oil giants to reclaim their rainforest

Life in the Indonesian village of Semunying Jaya on the island of Kalimantan was good. Its residents, indigenous Dayak Iban people, made a comfortable living off the surrounding forests, growing vegetables and rice, and harvesting rattan, rubber, and hardwoods. The local streams and rivers were so clean you could see the bottom and were full of fish. When a financial crisis hit Indonesia in 1997, the locals were unaffected, because they could survive off the forest, which they vigorously maintained.

That all began to change in 2004. It started innocently enough when the government said it needed to take some land to build a road. But the villagers noticed that along with the road construction, oil palms were being planted as well. Soon, the authorities began a massive land grab without an agreement with the local community. Then, a company called PT Ledo Lestari moved in with heavy equipment, and the locals were told to leave. PT Ledo Lestari is a subsidiary PT Duta Palma Nusantara, the plantations arm of the Darmex Agro Group, whose owner, Surya Darmadi, is one of Indonesia’s wealthiest men. Within a few years, the majority of the rainforest surrounding Semunying Jaya had been replaced by oil palm plantations.

Now, the intense and sustained use of pesticides on the palm oil plantations has poisoned the local environment and made it impossible to cultivate rice, vegetables, or corn. Subsistence farmers must walk many kilometres into the forest that remains to find a place where crops will grow. The Semuying River has become so muddied and polluted it can’t be used for drinking water, and the fish population has drastically declined. The wild boars and other animals the Dayak Iban people used to hunt have all but disappeared. Even the climate has changed. Without the cooling effect of the nearby forest, the village has become stiflingly hot.

The residents of Semunying Jaya aren’t willing to give up without a fight. As the land had been a communal forest since time immemorial, they believe the right to it belongs to the indigenous people who have been living there for generations. Though their initial efforts to stem the forest clearing through non-violent sabotage failed, they have now taken up a legal battle. The Dayak Iban villagers have begun to work with NGOs and environmental organisations to try to reclaim at least part of their lost land and bring a halt to its further destruction. They have also made a special point of educating the young and instilling them with a fighting spirit.

Court hearings on the Semunying Jaya residents’ claims against PT Ledo Lestari are currently underway, and the case has already gone to Indonesia’s Supreme Court.